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How to Destroy Your Enemies

February 24th, 2019, Pastor Galen

Genesis 45:3-11, 15; Luke 6:27-38

Archnemesis

How many of you have ever had an enemy? A rival? An archnemesis? Someone who seemed to be out for your destruction, or who tried to block you at every turn? Perhaps it was a co-worker or a colleague, a classmate, or a complete stranger.

The concept of an enemy is a rather universal phenomenon. Just as we have friends, there are also people in our lives who we can’t stand to be around, people who ruffle our feathers, or people who seem intent on our destruction.

Joseph had not just one enemy, but ten. And they weren’t coworkers or colleagues, they were his older brothers. And his brothers didn’t just beat him at Monopoly, or jump out of dark corners and scare him when he was walking through the house like my older brother did. His brothers hated him so much that they actually sold him into slavery.

This would be an utterly absurd story if it wasn’t completely true. Can you imagine this actually happening? Some of you may have had siblings who were mean to you. But selling your own flesh and blood as a slave? That takes the cake.

Sibling Rivalry to the Extreme

Joseph’s life was definitely one wild ride. Joseph was the eleventh of twelve brothers. He was the oldest son to his father’s favorite wife (so technically his ten older brothers were his half-brothers) and his father let it be known that Joseph was his favorite (37:3), which was the cause of no small amount of tension in the family. And if that weren’t bad enough, Joseph was also known to tattle on his brothers (c.f. Gen. 37:2) and his father intentionally sent him to spy on his brothers since they spent long periods of time tending their father’s flocks (37:14).

From an early age Joseph was a big dreamer. Maybe it was because his father thought so highly of him, or maybe because he had to constantly stand up to his older brothers, but for some reason Joseph’s dreams were always about how great he was and how someday he would rule over his brothers. That was all well and good, except that Joseph excitedly shared these dreams with his brothers. Probably not the wisest move on his part.

We have only a few examples of Joseph’s grandiose dreams and of his father’s ostentatious displays of favoritism, but eventually Joseph’s brothers couldn’t take it anymore. The next time Joseph came to spy on them, they faked his death and sold him into slavery, telling their father that Joseph had been attacked by a wild animal.

Sometimes Dreams Do Come True

Joseph was taken to Egypt and sold as a slave to Potiphar, the captain of Pharaoh’s guard. Joseph rose through the ranks and was eventually put in charge of Potiphar’s whole household. But then he was accused of attempting to rape Potiphar’s wife, which landed him in prison. Joseph again rose to the top, and eventually caught the eye of Pharaoh, the king of Egypt, because of his ability to correctly interpret dreams. Joseph gave wise counsel to Pharaoh in response to one of Pharaoh’s dreams and Pharaoh was so impressed that he put Joseph in charge of food distribution throughout the whole kingdom during a famine. And sure enough, who comes to get food during that famine, but Joseph’s older brothers.

By this point, fifteen years have passed since Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery. He was seventeen when he arrived in Egypt, and now he’s thirty two. Joseph has completely assimilated into Egyptian culture and society. Joseph appears to them as an Egyptian official — they have no clue that he is their brother. But there they are, bowing down to their own brother who they don’t recognize, begging him to give them food.

At this point, Joseph’s dreams have literally come true. He is ruling over his brothers – in fact he holds their lives in his hands, since if he chooses not to give them food they and their families will starve.

Joseph is given an opportunity that few people ever experience — the opportunity to make his enemies pay for the way they treated him. Joseph has won. Joseph is on top. His brothers are completely and utterly at his disposal, their lives are in his hands.

This is like the point in every epic war movie where the hero is standing over his enemy with the sword at his enemy’s throat. Joseph has the power to put an end to his suffering. His brothers’ lives are flashing before their eyes.

What is Joseph going to do?

Love Your Enemies?

In Luke 6 Jesus taught his disciples, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you”  (Luke 6:27-28), and “be merciful, just as your Father is merciful” (Luke 6:36).

If you didn’t know these words were from the Bible or spoken by Jesus, you would probably say, “that’s absurd! I could never love my enemies. I could never do good to those who hate me, or bless those who curse me.”

But of course, Jesus did just that. Jesus turned the other cheek when his accusers struck him. He blessed those who unjustly nailed him to the cross. He loved his enemies and prayed for them even while he breathed his last breath. He forgave us even when we rejected him. He had mercy on us.

Still, we may say, what’s the point in loving our enemies? What good will that do? Wouldn’t getting revenge on our enemies be so much sweeter?

The Cycle of Violence

The reality is that revenge rarely puts an end to violence. In fact, every act of violence usually results in more violence.

Bob hits Joe, and Joe hits Bob back even harder. Bob knows he’s outmatched, so he goes and gets his cousin, or uncle, or brother, and they come back and get revenge on Joe. Now Joe has to get his family involved to retaliate against Bob’s family. And the violence continues to escalate.

We like to think that the fighting will be over if the hero of the story could just deliver that one final blow to the villain. We’d like to think that one final ultimate act of violence will bring an end to violence all together. That’s what happens in every action movie, right? The hero delivers that last knockout punch or runs his sword through the enemy, and everyone lives happily ever after.

But that rarely happens in real life. Violence almost always results in more violence. Squabbles between individuals turn into family feuds that can last for years. Arguments between parties and factions turn into international wars. Violence and bloodshed results in more violence and bloodshed.

The Power of Love

The only way for violence to end is for one or both parties to decide not to retaliate. Someone needs to make the decision to put down their weapons, to back away, to decide not to repay evil for evil.

Of course, loving our enemies doesn’t always mean that they will start being nice to us. Jesus loved his enemies, but they still crucified him.

And yet it was Jesus’s death on the cross that brought about our redemption. Jesus won, not through taking the lives of his enemies, but by giving his own life for us. It wasn’t violence or military force that brought about our freedom from captivity — it was Jesus’s self-sacrificial love, expressed for us on the cross. Through his death and resurrection, Jesus conquered the enemy.

Love is a powerful force. As Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

“Love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into friend” (MLK Jr.). Or, as Abraham Lincoln once said, “I destroy my enemies when I make them my friends.”

In other words, the only way to put an end to the cycle of violence is to love our enemies.

Making Enemies Into Friends

In our community in Southwest Baltimore there lives a saintly woman by the name of Ms. Diane. Diane is a strong woman of faith who lived by herself for many years in what is not necessarily considered to be the safest neighborhood in Baltimore.

One day a man came to her door with a gun, demanding all of her money. Ms. Diane said that she had no money in the house, but that she could give him some food to eat if he was hungry. The man asked for canned food. Now this probably fits into the category of “do not try this at home unless absolutely prompted by the Holy Spirit” — but Ms. Diane refused to give the man canned food and instead she offered that if he wanted to come inside she would be glad to cook him a homemade meal.

With that, the man muttered something about her being a “crazy woman” and he turned and ran out the door.

Several years later, Ms. Diane heard a knock at the door. Went she opened the door, the same man was standing at the door. She didn’t recognize him without the gun in his hand, so he told her he was the same man who held her up at gunpoint several years before. He told her that experience had changed his life, that he left his life of crime and he had sought help with his addictions. He was standing before her a changed man.

Ms. Diane invited him into her house, cooked him some food, and they had an opportunity to share that meal that he had refused several years before.

Love is the only force capable of this sort of transformation.

WDJD? (What Did Joseph Do?)

Joseph had the power to make his brothers pay for what they had done to him, and when they first came to him he did speak harshly to them and even put them in prison for three days. Joseph could have done much more than that. He could have refused their request for food and turned them away. He could have sold them into slavery. He could have watched them suffer just like they made him suffer.

But despite everything Joseph’s brothers had done to him, despite the fact that they hated him so much that they sold him into slavery and lied to his father all those years, Joseph ultimately chose to forgive. He chose to love his brothers even though they had hated him. He chose to bless them even though they had cursed him.

Joseph chose to love, bless, and forgive those who had hurt him the most. And because he did that, Joseph won his family back. His relationship with his father and brothers and their family was restored. Joseph won by making his enemies his friends.

How Can We Do This?

The reality is the command to love our enemies is probably one of the most difficult commandments in the Bible. We cannot do it on our own, we need the power of the Holy Spirit in order to love and forgive our enemies. But loving our enemies is the only way to break the cycle of violence. Love is the only thing that can drive out hate. Love is the only way to truly destroy our enemies, as we them our friends.

Happy

February 17th, 2019, Pastor Galen

Luke 6:17-26

A Recipe for Happiness or a No Good, Very Bad Day?

What is something that makes you happy?

Perhaps it’s being around friends and family, or when your favorite team wins the Super Bowl. Maybe it’s getting a raise, promotion, positive performance review, or good grade at school, or curling up under a blanket on a cold winter day with a cup of hot tea and a good book.

It’s not surprising that none of us would say that we’re happiest when we’re hungry, or when people don’t like us, or when we have no money. And yet, Jesus told his disciples,  

“Blessed are you who are poor” (Luke 6:20), “Blessed are you who are hungry” (Luke 6:21), and, “Blessed are you when people hate you” Luke 6:22).

This word “Blessed” can also be translated “happy.” So Jesus is essentially saying, “happy are you who are hungry,” “happy are you who are poor,” and “happy are you when people hate you and, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man.”

I don’t know about you, but this does not sound like a recipe for happiness — it sounds much more like the perfect recipe for a “Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day” (the title of a children’s book)!

If Money is a Curse…

And then Jesus then turns around and tells his disciples, “Woe to you who are rich…Woe to you who are full now…Woe to you who are laughing now…Woe to you when all speak well of you” (Luke 6:24-26).

The word “woe” an expression of grief, pity, or concern. It’s kind of like saying, “I feel sorry for  you” or “Be warned/Be Careful!”

I don’t know about you, but when I hear Jesus telling people who are rich that he feels sorry for them, it reminds me of that famous exchange in the musical Fiddler on the Roof, where Perchik says, “Money is the world’s curse,” and Tevye (the milkman who is always wishing that he were rich), responds with, “May the Lord smite me with it. And may I never recover”!

Why does Jesus express pity for those who are rich? I mean, who among us wouldn’t like to be rich? Who doesn’t dream of winning the lottery, or inheriting millions of dollars from a wealthy relative we didn’t know we had, or stumbling upon some sort of get rich quick scheme that actually works? And even though we know those dreams are probably far-fetched, we’d probably settle for living comfortably for the rest of our lives and never having to worry about money ever again.  And of course we all want people to like us.

So why, according to Jesus, should a lack of money make us happy, and why does Jesus feel sorry for those who have money? Why should we be happy if we’re hungry, and why does Jesus grieve for those who have food? And why in the world should we be glad when people hate us on account of Christ?

There’s So Much More

Before we try to answer some of these questions, it’s important to note that Jesus is not telling us that we should actively try to make people hate us. Nor is he saying in these verses that we should aspire to be hungry or poor. He’s not saying that it’s good to be poor or that it’s necessarily bad to be wealthy.

Jesus is addressing those who are already hated and those who are already rich or poor. In those days people really didn’t have a lot of control over their class or status. It was pretty much impossible for poor people to work their way up and become rich. People weren’t just poor because they happened to be temporarily out of cash. They were poor because they lacked resources, opportunities, and social connections. At the same time, wealthy people usually didn’t become rich simply by working hard — they were born into wealthy families and were not only given resources, but also education, connections, and social capital that helped them maintain and grow their wealth.

So Jesus isn’t saying that everyone should be poor. What Jesus was inviting everyone to do was to shift their perspective, to look at whatever situation they found themselves in through the lens of eternity. Jesus wanted them to know that this life is not all there is, that the story is not over, that things are not always going to be this way.

Life Is But a Vapor

The Bible consistently reminds us that this life is short in comparison to eternity. Psalm 90:4 tells us that “A thousand years in your sight are like a day that has just gone by.” And in James 4:14 we find the words, “What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.”

A thousand years are like a day, and our lives are but a mist. Looking at our lives in the light of eternity puts things in a completely new perspective.

It’s so easy for us to become so consumed with our everyday lives that we forget that there is more than this life. We can get so caught up in just trying to survive that we forget this is just the tip of the iceberg. This life is fleeting, but eternity lasts forever.

Trouble Won’t Last Always…

Many of the people listening to Jesus that day were poor and lacked even the basic daily necessities of life. Many of them felt probably hopeless, marginalized, and oppressed. Jesus wanted them to find comfort in the reality that this life is not all there is, that there will come a time when Jesus will return and he will renew and restore things to the way they are supposed to be.

On that day persecution, injustice and oppression will cease, and every wrong will be made right. All who have put their faith and trust in Jesus will be raised to new life to spend eternity with Christ. Sickness will come to an end, there will be no more mourning and grieving. God’s righteousness will endure forever.

Jesus wanted those who were suffering to find hope and comfort in the reality that trouble will not last forever, that it won’t always be this way.

…But Neither Will Possessions

But there were also those listening to Jesus that day who were incredibly wealthy. They had cushy, comfortable lives, and they went around thinking very highly of themselves. They thought that God must be pleased with them, that they were wealthy because they were favored and blessed by God.

But Jesus felt sorry for them because they were wrong. They were no more blessed or favored by God than anyone else. But in fact they had been given that wealth as a responsibility, to steward well and to share with those in need. And Jesus was warning them that there would come a day when all that they had would disappear.

We have a saying that “he who dies with the most toys wins.” But it isn’t true! The reality is that we can’t take any of this with us when we go.

And so Jesus warns those wealthy people who were putting all of their time and attention into amassing more and more things on this earth, that they’ve already had their reward, and that there will come a day when everything they have will be wiped away, and all of us will be held accountable for how we have used the resources we have been given here on this earth.

If we are putting all of our hope in this earthly life, then we are to be pitied, because this life is short in comparison to eternity. And if we think we have it made because we have stored up enough stuff to last us forever, then we should be careful, because we are probably looking at our lives from an earthly perspective, rather than in the light of eternity.

Living in Light of Eternity

And so this morning I believe Jesus is inviting all of us to adopt an eternal perspective — to look at our lives in light of eternity. And I believe that no matter our status in life, no matter what we’re going through, Jesus is inviting us to cultivate a spirit of true happiness — a happiness that is not bound by our present circumstances, but that is shaped by the reality of Christ’s death and resurrection and the promise that one day we too will be raised to newness of life to spend eternity with God.

How do we remind ourselves that this life is not all there this, that there is more to life than gaining material wealth or prosperity? There are many ways we can do this, but here are a few suggestions that I have for us this morning:

  1. Interact with people who have less than you. It doesn’t matter how bad you have it, there’s always someone worse off than you. Our culture is obsessed with reading and hearing stories about the rich and powerful and elite. Instead, look for those in our community who don’t have a bed to sleep in or food to eat and to compare ourselves with them. Interacting with those who are less fortunate than us is a great way to remember to be grateful for what we have.
  2. Look for fun things to do that don’t involve spending money. Shopping ranks at the top of the list of America’s favorite pastimes. We need to find new ways to decompress and spend time with those we love, rather than constantly pining for all of the things we want but cannot afford.
  3. Take time to enjoy the beauty of creation. If possible, get outside and go for a leisurely walk every day. Stop and look at the flowers, the grass and the trees. Studies have shown that adding a 20-minute walk to your day can increase your happiness more than getting a pay raise at work! If you can’t go outside, look at pictures or watch shows about nature. Looking at God’s creation reminds us that our life is short in the light of eternity.
  4. Read books or watch movies about people who have sacrificed their own comfort, safety, or resources for the good of others. Many people have sacrificed not only their comfort, but their lives as well. Reading and hearing their stories reminds us that there’s more to life than money and possessions.
  5. Give generously. Even if you don’t have a lot to give, you can still give something. Acts 20:35 reminds us that Jesus said, “It is more blessed to give than to receive.” In other words, you’ll be happy when you give! Try it out. Give away something that is special or meaningful to someone in your life who will enjoy and appreciate it.

This morning as we seek to view our lives in the light of eternity, I want to leave us with this verse from the hymn Be Still My Soul:

Be still, my soul: the hour is hastening on

when we shall be forever with the Lord,

when disappointment, grief, and fear are gone,

sorrow forgot, love’s purest joys restored.

Be still, my soul: when change and tears are past,

all safe and blessèd (happy) we shall meet at last.

Amen! I’m glad that there is a day coming when disappointment, grief and fear will be gone. Let’s put our hope and our trust in Jesus, and let’s live in light of eternity!

Unworthy

February 10th, 2019, Pastor Galen

Isaiah 6:1-8; Luke 5:1-11

A Long Night

It had been a long night for Simon Peter and his friends. They had been fishing all night long but had caught nothing. Now I don’t know how common it was for this to happen, but it had to have been frustrating.

Simon was probably alternating between feelings of anger, frustration, and hopelessness as he thought about their night’s fruitless efforts. He and his partners cleaned their nets and prepared to go home to get a few hours of sleep before they had to come back and do it all over again that night.

Simon Peter’s family was depending on the fish that he caught for both income and food for the table. This was his business, his livelihood. What would he tell his wife when he got home? What would his wife say when he showed up at the door empty-handed?

Simon saw the crowd gathering on the shore and knew they were listening to Jesus, the religious teacher and miracle-worker who had become quite famous in that area. The previous day, Jesus had healed Simon’s mother-in-law (see Luke 4:38-39), so Simon knew who Jesus was and he knew the power that Jesus had.

Simon knew Jesus was a big deal, but right now he had too much on his mind to even bother to go over and listen to what Jesus was saying. Plus, he probably wanted to finish cleaning his nets and get home as quickly as possible.

Jesus Gets Into Simon’s Boat

But then all of a sudden Jesus started walking in his direction and called out to him, asking Simon if he could use his boat.

Simon agreed, probably feeling somewhat honored that Jesus had chosen his boat, but also perhaps a little confused as to why Jesus wanted to stand in his boat to teach the crowds.

Now the reality was that teaching from a boat was a genius move on Jesus’s part. Not only did it prevent him from getting crushed by the crowd, but water actually amplifies sound. So teaching from a boat made Jesus’s voice sound louder and made it possible for more people to hear what he was saying.

Of course it also made Simon a captive audience to hear what Jesus was saying. Simon’s dreams of going home to get some rest evaporated as Jesus instructed him to go out a little way from the shore and Jesus began to teach the people.

Exactly what Jesus taught the crowds that day we’ll never know. But Jesus often told stories and used analogies and object lessons from the everyday working life of the people — stories that everyone could relate to. We have a lot of parables in the Gospels about fields and grain and seeds and soil, and I like to think that Jesus told these stories while he was literally walking past fields of wheat, surrounded by people who knew what it was like to work the land. He probably told the parables about vines and vineyards while he was passing through wine country, and he told stories about sheep when he was standing in the fields talking with shepherds.

And so I like to imagine that as Jesus was standing there in Simon Peter’s boat, teaching the crowds of people gathered in that little fishing village, that Jesus probably told stories about fishing and fisherman to illustrate truths about God’s love, and the kingdom of God. Jesus was a masterful storyteller. I picture Simon, sitting there, struggling to stay away after his long night of work, only half-listening to what Jesus is saying because he’s so worried distracted by everything going on.

An Absurd Request

And then, when Jesus was done teaching, he turned to Simon Peter with a rather surprising request – he tells Simon Peter to take the boat out in the deeper waters and to let down his nets and get ready to catch some fish.

This is an absurd request for multiple reasons. First, Peter and his partners were professional fishermen. They knew the best timing and conditions to catch fish, and even they had been unsuccessful at catching any fish. Jesus, on the other hand, is a religious teacher and the son of a carpenter. What does he know about fishing? Plus, Simon Peter and his partners have already cleaned their nets. They’re probably exhausted, and if they don’t catch any fish again they’re going to have to clean their nets all over again for no reason.

But Simon Peter follows Jesus’s instructions – with perhaps only a little bit of snark in his response, essentially saying, “OK, if you say so!”

A Miraculous Catch

And of course Peter and his friends get the surprise of a lifetime. Nets filled to overflowing with fish. So many fish that the nets began to break and the boats begin to sink. This is probably more fish than they have ever seen in their lifetime.

Simon Peter’s response is one of immediate awe and shame. Simon Peter recognizes the overwhelming miraculous power of Jesus — he recognizes that he is standing in the presence of someone who is filled with the power of God. And he simultaneously recognizes how far he falls short. His doubt, his skepticism, his imperfections all rise to the surface, and he feels overwhelming shame. He is not worthy, he is undeserving to stand in Jesus’s presence. He falls to his knees and begs Jesus to go away from him.

I think Simon Peter is afraid. I love to picture Simon Peter as this big burly bearded fisherman, kneeling there in the boat. Kneeling on top of hundreds of squirming, wriggling fish, the boat about to sink because there are so many fish. Simon Peter realizes he is outmatched. Jesus is far greater than he is. He’s afraid to be around someone with so much power and authority.

But Jesus doesn’t condemn, doesn’t scold. He doesn’t point his finger at Peter and say “yes, you should be ashamed of yourself! Shame on you for your doubt, for not believing.” Instead, I believe Jesus looks at Simon Peter in love. Jesus loves Simon’s humility, but also his boldness and his courage. Jesus sees not only who Simon Peter is, but also who he can be.

And so he invites Simon Peter and his friends to follow him. And he tells Peter that he doesn’t have to be afraid, that Jesus is going to make Simon Peter a fisher of people.

I think that’s so beautiful. Jesus accepts Peter as he is, but he also sees what he can become. He doesn’t tell Peter that Peter needs to change his identity or take up a different occupation or take on a new persona. Jesus accepts Peter as a fisherman and tells him that he can use this fisherman to reach people with the Good News of the Kingdom of God.

Simon Peter, Isaiah, and Us

It’s striking to me that this story of Peter’s call to follow Jesus is so similar to the story of Isaiah’s call that we read in our reading from the Hebrew Bible this morning. In Isaiah chapter 6, Isaiah has a vision of the throne room of heaven, where he is confronted with the majesty and splendor of the glory of God. Isaiah is awestuck. But as he recognizes the wonder and majesty and power of God, he is immediately confronted with his own sinfulness and shortcomings. He feels unworthy and ashamed. But rather than being condemned for his sinfulness, he is offered cleansing, and he is invited to go and share the Good News.

Both Simon Peter and Isaiah have an experience where they recognize God’s power and authority. They are in awe, but they are also ashamed of how far they fall short. They confess their sinfulness, they receive grace and forgiveness, and they are invited to become bearers of God’s good news.

Perhaps this resonates with you. Maybe there was a time in your life when you were overcome with awe of God’s glory. Perhaps you experienced a miraculous healing or answer to prayer. Or perhaps you saw a gorgeous sunrise or a beautiful aspect of God’s creation and you found yourself just standing in awe of our Creator.

And perhaps at that point or at some other point in your life, you realized your own flaws and shortcomings. Perhaps you came to the end of your rope or realized that you couldn’t do it on your own and that you needed God’s help. But you wondered whether God would accept you. You wondered whether God would reject your or condemn you. Perhaps you felt shame, and you were afraid of what God might say, afraid that you might never be forgiven.

And so you cried out to God. And you felt God’s love wash over you like a flood. You were cleansed, forgiven. Do you remember that feeling of joy and relief when you realized that God’s grace is enough, that God was willing to accept you just as you are, that you don’t have to clean yourself up first, but that God’s love is vast enough to reach you wherever you are?

But of course, it doesn’t stop there. Once we have been cleansed and forgiven, then we’re also invited to participate in God’s mission. We’re called to share that Good News with others. And just like Simon Peter the fisherman, God invites us to use whatever gifts or skills or occupations we have to serve God. If you’re an accountant, you can be an accountant for God. If you’re a teacher, you can use your gifts in teaching to glorify God. If you’re an engineer or scientist or mathematician, then you can use those gifts and skills to serve God.

Worship, Confession, and Response

It also strikes me that this is the pattern of worship that we go through each week. We gather together to worship God. We sing songs like Holy, Holy, Holy — songs that extol God’s greatness and glory. We remember and reflect together on how good God is. But even as we remember together how great God is, we realize how far we fall short. We recognize our need for God. We pray the Lord’s Prayer and confess our sins and trespasses before the Lord, and as we confess our sins before the Lord we are reminded anew of God’s grace and mercy and forgiveness. And we’re invited to respond by sharing the Good News with others.

And so this morning I invite us, like Simon Peter and like Isaiah, to stand in awe of God’s greatness and glory. I invite us to recognize our need and dependence on God, to confess our sins before the Lord and allow God’s grace to wash over us anew. And as people who have been forgiven and cleansed, may we become bearers of God’s Good News to those around us.

Superpowers

February 3rd 2013, Pastor Galen

I Corinthians 13:1-13

Super Powers

If you could have any superpower you wanted, what would it be?

A friend of mine says he wishes that he had the ability to reach behind his back and pull out a plate of freshly baked chocolate chip cookies whenever he wanted. How many of you would like to have that gift?

Here in our passage today, the author lists some amazing powers, or gifts, that are kind of like superhero powers. Here are a couple of the powers that Paul talks about:

  • The ability to speak any language in the world
  • The ability to tell the future
  • The ability to make a mountain move just by commanding it to move.

Those would be some pretty cool superpowers, wouldn’t they?

I would love that first one — wouldn’t that be amazing to be able to speak Spanish, Chinese, Russia, French, German, and Greek and all the other languages in the world?

Or, what if you could always know what’s going to happen before it happens? (Actually, I’m not sure if I would really want that one or not… I kind of like surprises).

Or, what about the ability to make things move by just commanding them to move? This would absolutely be the superhero gift I would choose. Yesterday my daughters and I spent most of the morning folding and putting away laundry. Imagine if we had just been able to say, “laundry, be folded and put away!” That would have been great.

But Paul tells us that having all of the greatest powers in the world would be worthless without one very important thing: Love.

You see, it doesn’t matter how powerful you are, or how many wonderful things you do to help other people on a regular basis, if the things you do are not motivated by love, if it’s not motivated by love it’s pointless. In fact, any sort of power without love can be a very dangerous thing.

Corinth

The reason Paul was writing this to the people in Corinth is because some of the Corinthians thought that their special gifts or abilities were better than others. The Corinthians didn’t necessarily have superpowers, but God has given each one of us gifts that we can use to help others and to bless the church.

For example, some of the Corinthians were good at teaching. Some of them were preachers and evangelists. Others of them were good at leadership or administration, and still others seemed to have the gifts of healing (see 1 Cor. 12:28-30).

The problem is that some of the people in Corinth thought that their gifts were better or more important than other people’s gifts. Perhaps the teachers thought they were more valuable than those who did the administrative work. Or the leaders thought they were more significant than the people who did collected the tithes and offerings.

And you know what? I don’t think that the Corinthians were the only people who ever thought that way. The reality is that all of us probably value the things that we’re good at, and we might have a tendency to look down on people who aren’t gifted in the same way.

If you have the gift of hospitality and you are really good at making people feel welcome and at home, it’s probably really frustrating to go to someone’s house who isn’t very hospitable. If you’re a really gifted teacher, it can be very frustrating to be taught by  someone who is not a good teacher.

But what Paul told the Corinthians in the previous chapter is that every member of the Church has a unique gift and a valuable role to play in the church. Every spiritual gift is equally important. The preacher is not more important or significant than the Sunday School teacher. The pianist is not more important than the greeters or the ushers. We all have a vital role to play in the Church, and we all need each other.

Noisy Gongs and Clanging Cymbals

And now here in this beautiful and poetic chapter, Paul takes it a step further to say that it doesn’t matter what we’re good at, or how much we’ve sacrificed our time or energy or resources to help other people, if what we do is not motivated by love, it’s worthless.

Paul uses the analogy of a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. Both of those instruments can be really beautiful when played at the just the right moment in an orchestral suite. But they can both be really irritating and annoying when played all the time.

In the same way, doing wonderful things for others for any other reason other than love can be quite aggravating.

You’ve probably all met someone who does nice things for other people but for the wrong reasons. They want others to be indebted to them. They go around keeping a mental list of everyone who owes them favors. At first they seem servant-hearted, but when you scratch the surface you find that down deep they’re really self-centered.

Or maybe you know someone who is always doing nice things for their bosses or teachers or those in authority, with the hopes of climbing the corporate ladder or getting ahead of everyone else. They’ll step on whoever they need to in order to make it to the top. They grow in power, but not in love.

Paul says that you can do all the wonderful things in the world. You can even give all of your possessions away or give everything you own for a particular cause, but if don’t have love, then it’s worthless.

Love is What We Need

Love is a powerful force. And it’s a necessary force. It’s a force that is severely lacking in the world today. It’s a force that our world desperately needs.

As I look around at our world today, we have plenty of gifted and talented people. We have plenty of powerful people. But we don’t need more people who are only concerned with getting ahead, or who are interested in building up favors from other people.

We need more people who are loving. Genuinely loving. And not just any type of love, but a Christ-like love that doesn’t discriminate or differentiate. A love that loves across boundaries, a love that doesn’t care who you are or what you’ve done. A love that flows out of the love that God has for us. A love that overflows from Christ’s sacrificial love, expressed on the cross for us.

How do we gain this type of love? What do we need to do in order to become the type of people who love like this?

Pursue Love

Interestingly enough, Paul doesn’t provide us with a how-to manual in this passage. He doesn’t give us the 5 or 10 steps to becoming a loving person.

Instead, he tells us what love looks like:

“Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (1 Cor. 13:4-7).

Paul wants us to be able to recognize love when we see it. Love is already around us, and if we have Jesus living in us, then love is already inside us.

But if we want to grow in love, we need to know what real love actually looks like. We need to be able to know it when we see it. And we need to open ourselves up to receive more of God’s love, so that it can flow out of us to those around us.

In the very next passage — 1 Corinthians 14:1, Paul tells the Corinthians to “Pursue love…” Each of us have the ability to love others. It’s inside us! But we need to work at it. We need to chase after it. We need to grow in it.

There are a lot of gifts and talents that we could pursue. We can and should pursue the things we’re gifted in. If you have the gift of teaching by all means use it, and seek to grow in it! If you’re gifted in administration, or hospitality, use those gifts, and strive to get even better at them!

But above all, let’s seek to grow in love. Let’s pursue it. Let’s strive after it. Let’s recognize that all of our wonderful gifts and talents are worthless without out. Let’s open ourselves up to receive more of God’s love, and let’s let it exude out of us to everyone we come into contact with. Let’s get to know Jesus more intimately so we can truly know what love looks like, and so that we can grow in our love for God and for others.

Because in the end (according to Paul), Love is the only thing that will last. Love is the ultimate super power.

Empty Jars

January 27th 2019, Pastor Galen

John 2:1-11

A Sober Situation

Jesus and his disciples are attending a wedding reception, and the wine has run out.

A 1st Century Palestinian wedding reception with no wine is like a crab feast with no crabs, a birthday party without a birthday cake, or a 4th of July Party without fireworks.

In other words, this is a catastrophe!

But in order for us to understand just how devastating this situation is, it’s helpful if we understand a little bit about 1st century Palestinian Jewish life and wedding celebrations.

 

Small towns like Cana had relatively small populations. Cana probably had at most 1,000 people, and so a wedding like this did not come along every day.

Life was rather difficult for first-century Palestinian Jews living as an oppressed minority under Roman occupation with very few rights. For example, in other biblical accounts, we learn that a Roman soldier could come by and force a first-century Jewish man to carry his armor for a mile.

Most people lived day-to-day, paycheck to paycheck, with no savings, sick leave, or retirement plans. Many men were day laborers — they often spent their days waiting out in the town square for hours at a time, waiting for some wealthy landowner to come and hire them to work in their fields for the day.

 

And so, weddings in those days were a wonderful distraction from the toilsome reality of life. And by the way, wedding celebrations did not just last one day – they lasted for seven whole days! And the whole town was invited.

An essential element of celebration in first-century Palestinian Jewish culture was wine. The wine was rather watered down — it did not have nearly the same alcoholic content that wine does today. But it was nevertheless a critical element in the celebration of a wedding feast.

 

And so, running out of wine somewhere in the middle of a much-anticipated 7-day wedding festival where the whole town was invited was probably the worst nightmare for the hosts of this wedding feast. Not only would this situation cause the festival to come to a grinding halt, but this would cast tremendous shame and embarrassment on the couple who just got married, and indeed their whole family.

 

Jesus – Do Something!

 

We might find it interesting that Jesus and his disciples are attending this 7-day wedding festival when there were so many other important things Jesus could be doing. We can imagine him healing people, or teaching. But attending a wedding feast? But we see in the Gospels that Jesus was always present with the people. Jesus did not separate himself off in some ivory palace or lock himself away in a religious library. Jesus is always with the people, and so when it’s time for a celebration, that’s where Jesus is.

It’s Jesus’s mother who makes him aware that the wine has run out. And in response, Jesus says “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come” (John 2:4). This word “woman” is not as disrespectful as it might sound to us. It’s a formal word, and somewhat distant – but it’s probably more the equivalent of saying “mother,” rather than “Mom.”

But why does Jesus respond this way? And what does Jesus mean by the statement that his “hour has not yet come”?

Well, in other places in the Gospel of John, the “hour” refers to the time when Jesus is lifted up on the cross. It’s the time when Jesus is glorified, when he reveals himself to be the Messiah, the Son of God. So it seems that Jesus is saying that if he were to do what his mother wants him to do, it could set off the chain reaction that would eventually lead to his death on the cross.

I’m really not sure what Mary had in mind when she approached Jesus. Perhaps she just wanted Jesus to go to the store to buy more wine. Or perhaps Mary wanted Jesus to do some sort of flashy miracle here — something that would show all of these townspeople who Jesus really is. You see, Mary has known since before Jesus was born who Jesus really is – she knows that he is the Messiah, the Savior of the world. And she’s had to hold on to that secret all of these years. So maybe Mary wants Jesus to do something showy and impressive here, to get everyone’s attention and show them who he is and why he’s come. Maybe Jesus could make it so that everyone’s cup would automatically refill with wine every time they drank from it, or cause it to rain wine down from out of the sky.

But Jesus tells his mother that his hour has not yet come.

But then Mary does something very interesting. She turns to the servants and says “do whatever He tells you to do.”  Mary seems to understand that Jesus is not going to do what she wants him to do, but she has confidence that he is going to do something.

And sure enough, Jesus does indeed act, but in a way that is quite shocking.

Empty Ceremonial Jars

There’s a very remarkable little detail regarding this miracle that’s really rather scandalous when you stop to think about it. I want us to consider for a moment the containers that Jesus used to turn the water into wine. Now there were probably plenty of empty wineskins laying around, and Jesus could have used some of those. Or if necessary he could have miraculously caused wine jugs to appear out of nowhere.

But instead, Jesus turns and sees six massive stone water jars sitting off to the side – the types of stone water jars that were usually used for the Jewish rites of purification. And he sees that these vessels are empty.

You see, the Jewish people had all sorts of religious ritual requirements. They had to wash their hands thoroughly before eating and before going into the temple and before engaging in all sorts of religious rituals. It wasn’t just about being free from germs – it was symbolic of being cleansed from sin, and the leaders taught the people that it was necessary to do all of these purification rituals in order to be accepted by God.

The fact that these six huge stone water jars were sitting there empty means that at one time the family who is hosting this wedding feast had been a very religious family who had done all the right religious rituals. They probably went to the synagogue every week, said all the prayers, offered all the sacrifices they were supposed to offer.

But the fact that these huge stone water jars seem to be sitting there empty indicates that they weren’t being used anymore.

Maybe the family didn’t see the point in doing all the rituals and so they just stopped doing them. Or maybe in the midst of all the wedding preparations they were just too busy to keep up with all the religious rituals they were supposed to do.

And so these massive ritual purification jars are just sitting there in the corner gathering dust, empty, purposeless, a reminder of the bygone days when religions played a more central role in their life.

The Best Wine

Jesus sees these empty stone purification jars, and he tells the servants to fill them with water, and to draw some of the water out. And somehow, miraculously, the water becomes wine! And not just any wine, but the best wine ever! And a LOT of wine. Each vessel held somewhere between 20 and 30 gallons of water, so that means that Jesus made somewhere between 120 and 180 gallons of wine!

In doing this, Jesus saved the wedding festival from coming to a grinding halt, and he saved the hosts and the newly married couple from tremendous shame and embarrassment.

But Jesus also did this miracle to show his disciples and those closest to him something about who he was and what he came to do. Most of the wedding guests, and even the host of the wedding festival, probably did not even know that this miracle had taken place. But his followers and his family who were there with him saw Jesus use empty, no-longer-used religious vessels, and fill them with something that brought joy. And this is a beautiful picture of who Jesus is and what he came to do.

New Wine for You

Jesus didn’t come to institute rigorous religious requirements, nor did he come to do away with all of the old religious systems altogether. He came to take what was old and make it new again. He came to bring fresh vision and purpose to what had become empty and meaningless. He came to bring abundant life and joy.

And I believe that Jesus wants to do the same for you – and for our church.

Maybe there was a time when you read your Bible regularly, but now it’s just laying there gathering dust. Maybe you used to pray every day, but it seemed like your prayers just weren’t being answered, or maybe you just got busy and so you just stopped doing it. Maybe you used to find a lot of joy in doing good things for others, but it seems like they don’t appreciate what you’re doing for them, so you’re tempted to give up.

I believe that Jesus wants to fill those places in your life that are empty with new wine. I believe that Jesus wants to reignite the passion that you once had for God. I believe that God wants to do something new and fresh in your life. Jesus may not always do exactly what you want him to do, but he will always give you what you need if you ask. The Bible says that God is a Father who wants to give us good gifts (Matt. 7:11), and Jesus said that our Father in heaven will give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him” (Luke 11:13).

New Wine for Our Church

I also believe that God wants to bring a new sense of life and joy to our church, to give us fresh vision and purpose.

One of the things that struck me when I first came to this church is all of the different ways that this congregation is serving the community. From hosting the food pantry and running a thrift store, to putting on monthly family fun nights and a weekly Sunday morning children’s ministry, this congregation is doing a lot of things to reach and serve the community.

But it also strikes me that there are a lot of places here in our church building that are only used once a week, or even less frequently. I get the sense that there was a time when every nook and cranny of this building was filled with people, and I would love to see that happen once again! And I’ve seen a lot of items around the church that used to be used frequently, but now they’re gathering dust because we don’t have enough people or volunteers to make use of them. I’m praying that God would bring more people to join us in our mission, and that we would once again be able to make use of all of the resources that we have here in our church.

Just like those empty ritual purification jars, Jesus wants to fill us with fresh new wine. Let us offer ourselves up as willing vessels, and let us allow God to do something amazing and miraculous in us!